It took some planning and luck, but we managed to schedule 3 days to get out for some backpacking in the White Mountains, with a bit in Crawford Notch State Park and Pemigewasset Wilderness. Once we figure out the dates and a rough time plan, next was to figure where we were heading and where we’d camp. This took some brainstorming and a bit of back and forth but we manufactured a great game plan.
With an afternoon start on Sunday, we would have a good portion of sunlight to put in some miles. We had some hints that weather may sour on a 3rd day so we flipped the itinerary to do the same route counterclockwise to ensure we hit one of the main goals, Whitewall slide, while the weather was good.
We hit the trail just after 3pm from the Ethan Pond trailhead at the top of Willey Station Road. The lot was busy but being late on a Sunday, we were able to find a spot. We loaded up and were on our way. Ethan Pond Trail has a bit of gain early but levels off nicely, especially after Ethan Pond campsite. We cruised past Shoal Pond Trail, and intended return route, then the junction of Thoreau Falls Trail. We decided to make the short diversion to Thoreau Falls to check it out and top off water. This is an amazing spot. The trail crosses near the top of the falls as they cascade down the ledges. The sun was low and lit everything up nicely. The photos do not compare to reality. After enjoying the views and taking on some water, we returned to Ethan Pond Trail and continued to the base of the Whitewall slide just about 6pm.
I am not a fan of exposed routes, but this seemed doable. We had done our homework and knew the slide is active and capable of moving under our steps and even tumbling rocks as we climb. Aside from web searches and Facebook posts, this was released just before our trip, how fortunate.
This route will test me, but I was along with Joel and Jake who seem fearless, but also tested and proven adventurers. They bring the encouragement my feeble psyche needs. We started up the base fan of boulders and within the first 50 feet, Jake made a step and the rocks above and below him all shifted down, as if to warn us to take care. Joel led the way and found a route following ‘islands of safety'(see, we learned) on some gray tinted rocks. We carefully zigged and zagged across the slide carefully choosing our routes and taking care of position above and below. There were a couple of sketchy steps, but mostly this was slow, careful maneuvers on delicate rocks. The exposure was manageable, and I even caught a few glimpses of the views when stopping to rest. The top of the slide is met with thick brush which must be navigated to the crown of the slide/ledges. We each chose different routes but eventually popped out of the scrub at nearly 7:30pm.
We enjoyed the views all around, from the Willey Range and beyond, Carrigain and Carrigain Notch, Mt Bond, and the sun approaching Zealand the Twins. We wanted to stay longer but knew the sun was setting and we still had an unknown bushwhack to get down. You see, getting up the slide is one way up, but this summit has no established trail. I had downloaded a GPS track from Wikiloc, which may have been a mistake. We bushwhacked over to the actual summit canister, took some photos, signed the register and started our descent. At times we were able to find a vague herd path to follow early on, but we lost it fairly quickly. We knew our direction, we had a GPS track and had options. We decided to follow the GPS track which pushed through some of the thickest, nastiest bushes, sometimes chest and head high. This made for slow going and we quickly lost sunlight and donned headlamps. Joel and Jake blazed most of the way, I frequently checked GPS. We reached a decision point, to continue to A-Z trail near the junction of Ethan Pond Trail or left and drop down off the ridge directly to Ethan Pond Trail. We wanted off the ridge and dropped down. The bushwhack changed from thick underbrush to thick pine brush, now with a steady drop and boulders covered in dense pine needles. Occasionally we picked up a herd path, but lost it quickly again. We eventually dumped out to a drainage pad along side Ethan Pond Trail. We were all relieved to be out of the thicket about 9:45pm
Now we needed to find camp. We knew of a large wilderness site frequented by thru-hikers but needed to find it. We wandered up and down Ethan Pond Trail between it and the Twinway. I was recalled I downloaded the reference(Google Docs) to this site and read it multiple times out loud. I think I was delirious because I couldn’t make sense of direction. Luckily, Joel and Jake figured it out and we soon found the huge, empty site. We all set up camp, quickly chowed dinner and rest. I struggled to sleep all night, watched a movie, listened to music and dozed here and there, but predominantly a sleepless night.
Got up when I heard the others stirring and had instant coffee and oatmeal(mixed together, tastes good and saves water when needed) for breakfast. We had a solid plan for the day which would take us over Zealand, Bonds and cross the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River.
We set out up the AMC Zealand Hut first. This hut is located right on Zealand Falls and some fine views. We topped off water and headed up out of Zealand Notch. After departing from the falls, the trail climbs steeply up to Zeacliff lookout. From here we were able to look back at Whitewall Mountain, the slide, and the grueling bushwhack out. Some amazing views from this lookout every time I’ve visited.
After some minor adjustments we continued up the Twinway Trail which has one or two short steep sections but otherwise a nice quiet stroll. There are a few camping spots, not technically legal, near the junction of the Zeacliff Pond spur trail. Just past these, there are a couple brief climbs, then levels off again until the junction of the Mt Zealand spur trail. A quick trip to tag the summit again and returned to the Twinway to continue toward Mt Guyot. I always forget how much elevation loss occurs after Zealand before climbing back out to Mt Guyot. It’s a bit of a spirit killer, not horrible, but topo doesn’t seem to match reality. I think some of the reason I forget about that is the amazing feeling of popping out onto Mt Guyot, with it’s broad crown, and being presented with the entire Pemigewasset Wilderness before you.
We absorbed much of the views and sun and continued down toward Guyot Campsite junction. Nobody needed water, not enough to press down the .3 mile descent, only to climb back up. We pushed on up Bondcliff Trail and passed up on West Bond. I should have tagged it, but it was warm, borderline hot, and we were all still a bit zonked from the prior days events. We reached Mt Bond and had the summit to ourselves. I opted to sit and eat some lunch as I was pretty hungry. The others sat as well and patiently waited for me. I enjoyed some Justin’s Almond Butter on a tortilla, with a sprinkle of granola and raisins for added texture. This fills me and sits well for long days.
Moving on to the descent toward Bondcliff, the top section is a little slow going. The top is only a little steep, but the footing is awkward at times. This is only until the col and then the footing becomes great. I always get on the wrong side of the trail borders going up Bondcliff. It seems I can’t tell which is the trail from the beaten paths and rock borders. It’s wide open so not going to get lost, but constantly doing the dance to avoid damaging the fragile vegetation. At the top, I actually mustered enough courage to step out onto the famed Bondcliff rock pillar. It wasn’t as bad as I played it out in my head on prior trips, but still got my senses heightened. A trip over Bondcliff is always amazing with views all around, from Carrigain Notch and back into the heart of the Pemigewasset.
From here, we dropped down Bondcliff Trail all the way to the old rail bed. There is a seemingly random trail sign marking Bondcliff Trail and directing toward the ends, Twinway and Lincoln Woods Trail. From here we navigated off trail, sort of. We followed the now retired section of the Wilderness Trail beyond the dilapidated train trestle to the remains of a suspension bridge. There are concrete footings and massive eye bolts still visible. From here we went down the embankment and searched out a suitable place to cross the river. Water levels were not too high and we only had to scout up river a short stint to find a spot. Joel and Jake removed their footwear, but I left mine on. We each chose a different spot to cross but all made it safely. The existing Wilderness Trail is just up the bank. This is a remote trail that sees little use. Now having said that, just as we started to figure our way, a couple of guys came down trail from Cedar Brook looking to find Thoreau Falls Trail. We chatted a bit and hiked the short stretch to the junction and off they went. We had targeted camping near Stillwater Junction so we continued on.
When we arrived, we found a couple different sites to camp, but none large enough for our two hammocks and a tent. After some exploring, Jake and Joel set up on the shoreline in a sandy highwater wash and I set up on top of the hill a bit away. I got my gear set up for the night and headed back to them to cook and eat dinner. We all gobbled down our meals and Jake somehow magically extracts an apple pie from his pack. He had been toting this around unbeknownst to us. I don’t recall where he got it, but it tasted amazing after a long days hike. We cleaned up a bit and headed to rest. I had one of the best nights sleep.
The morning came and I could have laid in my hammock longer, but needed finish the trip. Joel came up to make sure I was up so we could start the day. Wrapped up my site, stuffed my temporary home in my pack, and ate a quick breakfast. The start had us crossing the river at the junction and then continuing on Shoal Pond Trail. The trail was quite boggy and a bit steamy with the sun rising up. The trail is rugged and well weathered. The bog boards are barely holding together and the grasses and brush was tall in many spots. It was easy to follow, just a very remote wilderness feel. It was a long level trail that, aside from the remote vibe, didn’t have too many exciting features. One of them was the Shoal Pond near the junction of Ethan Pond Trail. It is a really nice pond, that looks like it would make a great autumn retreat for photographers or even a quiet fishing hole.
After linking back up with Ethan Pond trail, we continued back on the trail we began after making a large loop. We made it back to the car and made a stop at Fourth Iron Tentsite for a brief visit with one of Jake’s friends. We changed into some street clothes and headed toward North Conway and a great meal at Delaney’s Hole in the Wall. A nice finish to a great trip.